Warning: This article may contain mild spoilers
Ava DuVernay’s “When They See Us” is a flashlight for the generation that has never heard of the injustice five boys from Harlem faced; it sheds light on a group of young boys of color, who lost five to fifteen years of their lives to the prison system. Often referred to as the “Central Park Five,” Kevin Richardson, Antron Mccray, Raymond Santana Jr., Korey Wise, and Yusef Salaam were just five boys who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and wrongly convicted for the rape of Trisha Meili.
As someone who was born in the late ’90s, the “Central Park Five” case was something I had only heard of a few years prior. Whenever the argument against the U.S. prison system and the justice system is made, the “Central Park Five” case is a common example.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with the case in question, Ava DuVernay captures the different aspects of racial, economic, and societal situations that gave the prosecutors and detectives the opportunity to push this erroneous case forward. All five boys were minors, aged from 14-16 years old, came from a modest working class background, and in some of the boys’ cases, single parent homes. It’s no secret that the justice system is only kind to those who are a part of a white, affluent, and well-connected society. We need to look no further than the case of Brock Turner, who was only given a six-month jail sentence for rape — after being caught red-handed — because he was a white man attending an elite university, and the judge, in his own words, felt that he didn’t wish to deny the rapist his “bright future.”
DuVernay is able to capture and portray the struggles all five boys faced, from their financial inability to afford proper attorneys to the effects the trial had on them and their families. She makes their story resonate with you, and puts you through a roller coaster of emotions. The story of these five boys makes you realize that without racial, economic, or social privilege, the justice system is rigged against you. All five boys pled their innocence over and over again, there was no evidence linking them to the rape, and only two of the boys actually knew each other. And yet, the heavy arm of the law came down on these boys in the heaviest of terms.
After four of the five boys had finished their sentences, the state of New York exonerated them of all convictions. In 2014, they were given 41 million dollars. Exoneration and millions of dollars will not repair the adolescence of those five boys.
It will not take away the trauma and struggles they faced during their trials, sentences, and lives after their sentences.
Kevin, Antron, Raymond, Korey, and Yusef’s case may be closed with a seemingly bright ending, but Ava DuVernay forces us to confront the lives ruined based on racial prejudice, and she demands that we think about the numerous innocent people who are sitting in prison for crimes they didn’t commit.
Who is fighting for them? Are their injustices being heard? Change needs to be brought to the U.S. justice system and prisons, because the way it operates currently, the system is doing more harm than offering protection.